May Day in Hamilton, Ontario

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march 1The first of May, celebrated in many nations across the world as Labour Day or International Workers Day, has a long tradition of worker’s activism and protest.  This year was no different, as protestors around the world rallied to send various messages to governments.

May Day is not officially recognized as Labour Day in northern North America, despite its North American roots, which stretch back to the 1886 Haymarket affair, and the struggle for the eight-hour workday.  In 1958, to separate workers’ celebrations between the US and USSR, Congress officially designated May 1 as Loyalty Day in the US, while Labor Day was moved to the first Monday in September.  This also marks official Labour Day celebrations in Canada.

This did not stop hundreds of people from gathering in Hamilton, Ontario, this May Day to celebrate what one speaker called the “real” Labour Day.  Workers assembled at the Hamilton Convention Centre for a May Day rally, followed by a march through the streets of downtown Hamilton.  The march ended at the non-profit village set up in the city’s core, where people congregated for hours afterwards on the street, enjoying food, drink, music and camaraderie.

Hosted by Hamilton’s Local 1005 of the United Steelworkers, those in attendance overwhelmingly represented working people from three Ontario cities: Sudbury, Hamilton, and Oshawa.

This may explain why the mood of the crowd, rather than one of jubilation and revelry, might better be characterized by its sombre tone and raw emotion.

The rally began with songs and poetry, including a live performance by laid-off Hamilton steelworker Remo Cino, whose song Everything Comes At A Price brought the crowd to its feet for the first of many standing ovations of the day.

non-profit villageHamilton has certainly witnessed more than its fair share of devastation in the past few years of industrial collapse, as speakers attested to again and again.  Its most recent blow was a particularly bitter pill to swallow, when Labatt Breweries announced the  closure of Hamilton’s Lakeport Brewery on April 30, 2010 – production ceased two weeks earlier than originally announced.  To add insult to injury, Labatt is also preventing a new brewery from purchasing the plant, in effect blocking any and all beer production in Hamilton.

This May Day for Hamilton marks the first time in 170 years that beer has not been produced in the city.  As more than one speaker noted, beer has long been a staple of social and cultural life in Hamilton – this is a particular affront, then, to a city that has seen its industrial manufacturing base virtually collapse in recent years.

The Sudbury delegation, more specifically Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers, was especially vocal.  Having so far endured nine and a half months of a strike against concessions at Vale-Inco, and with no end in sight, the spirit and enthusiasm of the miners was admirable, to say the least.  The strike has taken quite a toll; a speaker from Sudbury had difficulty holding back his tears as he relayed the difficulties these men and women have faced in the past months.

Brazilian-owned Vale has hired AFI, a private firm that provides investigative and security services.  Miners reported that AFI’s investigative services have extended to surveillance of their families, in some cases even following their children home from school.  Vale’s use of scab labour during the strike has proven to be an especially explosive issue.  This past Wednesday, unionized workers won a small victory when Sudbury’s City Council passed an anti-scab motion unanimously.  The miners will still have to tackle the provincial government if they hope to restore anti-scab legislation in Ontario, passed by Ontario’s Rae government in 1992, and later eliminated by the Harris government.  Labour falls under provincial jurisdiction.

The march through the streets of Hamilton was in many ways a bittersweet experience.  On the one hand, it was heartening to see hundreds of people come together to express their collective voice for the rights of working people, and for the hundreds of thousands who have been thrown out of work in Canada’s manufacturing industry throughout the decade.  History reveals that rights and gains made by working people have rarely been handed to them freely by the powers that be.  Only when workers, the poor and the dispossessed, have taken to the streets and the polls to demand change have rights and benefits been won.

On the other hand, it is incredibly sad to witness firsthand the devastation that has been unleashed on Hamilton.  Not a single person I met in the streets asked me what I do, a common enough question when meeting new people.  Instead, I was asked over and over again: “What did you do?”  The present did not provide much in the way of conversation material for the people I met on the streets of Hamilton; instead the focus was on the past, a past where people had jobs, homes, livelihoods – a past that for far too many seems completely disconnected from their present and future.

Alas, tonight I will raise a glass in both sorrow and celebration to Hamilton, not only for all that it was, but for all that it is and will be.  Hamiltonians and others supporting the boycott against Labatt’s will no doubt appreciate the gesture, as long as it is NOT a glass of: Budweiser; Alexander Keith’s; Bass; Bohemia; Bud Light; Castlemaine XXXX; Kokanee; Labatt Blue; Labatt Blue Light; Labatt Family; Labatt Ice; Labatt Sterling; Lakeport Pilsner; Liber; Löwenbräu; Löwenbräu Oktoberfestbier; Löwenbräu Original; Marathon; Michelob Lager; Murphy’s; Skol; St. Pauli GirlLeffe; Hoegaarden; Stella Artois; Becks.

Sincere thanks are due to Jim Clifford, Ian Milligan and Tom Peace for their helpful feedback.

Suggestions For Further Reading:

Irving Abella, On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada, 1919-1949 (Toronto: James Lewis & Samuel, 1974).

Craig Heron, “The Boys and Their Booze: Masculinities and Public Drinking in Working-Class Hamilton, 1890-1946” Canadian Historical Review 86:3 (2005), 411-452.

Craig Heron, Working in Steel: The Early Years in Canada, 1883-1935 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1988).

Craig Heron and Steve Penfold, The Worker’s Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

Steven High, Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt, 1969-84 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).

Bryan Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1880-1991 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992).

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